Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality: Support for an Argument against “Religious Freedom” Laws
Investigating why the Bible is so often used to discriminate against the LGBT community has exposed me to a lot of interesting information. I read the Bible and then moved on to a number of books that offered helpful perspective on the Bible. My response to a lot of this information in my posts over the last three years has made me feel like I’m repeating myself quite a lot. I find no issue with the Bible itself; it is what it is; however, the issue is how so many people (and groups of people) have misused the Bible for their own unfortunate political agendas. Often, this agenda targets—and unfairly singles out—the LGBT community.
I devoted many a post to this particular point.
However, more and more news stories discuss people who have found fresh ways to use the Bible to discriminate against the LGBT community, using the thin (and inaccurate) reasoning that “the Bible says so.” These stories remind me why repeating myself is important and necessary. The crop of recent “religious freedom” laws adopted by a few states is a perfect example. The faulty “reasoning” behind these bigoted measures grossly misrepresent the religious views expressed in the very book they’re using to defend them.
I recently finished reading: Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality by Andrew Sullivan, and this book offers plenty of useful information that elucidates just how flawed the reasoning behind these bigoted laws is.
In this book, Sullivan argues in favor of society accepting homosexuality—or at least leaving us alone—during an era when our community was gaining ground in the mid-90s. In addition to putting the issue in political as well as historical context, the book breaks down four groups of peoples involved in this issue. Using labels he constructs as well as defines, he presents: The Prohibitionists, the Liberationists, the Conservatives, and the Liberals.
His chapter on the Prohibitionists most directly examines how religious leanings influence attitudes about homosexuality, so that’s the only part I’ll discuss here.
Beginning from a generalization about what opponents of homosexuality believe—“homosexuality is an aberration and that homosexual acts are an abomination” (20)—he labels those most stringently opposed to us as prohibitionists. (As they would see how we live our lives prohibited.) He of course deals most with the religious support for this point of view. This is problematic, in part because their arguments are not grounded in logic but rather beliefs. He accurately points out that you can’t have a reasoned dialogue with a person who argues using beliefs: they are beliefs (meaning not grounded in logic, someone just believes something to be true). In this case, they believe the Bible is true, therefore you can’t counter their point with reason. Something either belongs to a person’s beliefs or it doesn’t.
He focuses his detailed examination of Bible content on six sections most commonly dissected. He offers little that you won’t read elsewhere, but he does a good job probing the context in which ideas are expressed in the Bible as well as how important proper translation of what is written in this ancient text is. (Basically, we don’t always know what we think some of these passages mean, in part because of the specific words used in the language of the original Bible authors.) So I won’t regurgitate all of his points here.
One point in particular about a section in Romans, however, is worth discussing here.
Paul states: “For this cause, God gave them up into vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (Romans 1:26-27).
According to Sullivan, in this passage, Paul is calling out Romans who persist in their polytheism, even though they have been given the opportunity to follow the one true God (29). Furthermore, this is significant because of the wording: Paul is calling out those who go against their presumed heterosexual nature and engage in “unnatural” gay sex instead. Paul declines to address those who, against their will—i.e. making no conscious decision—engage in sexual behavior that is in line with their nature: those who are born homosexual. These people, by definition, and Paul’s reasoning, are acting naturally. Therefore, Paul’s condemnation would not apply to them (or us).
To support this point, Sullivan states: “Historians record that in virtually all societies, there are records not only of homosexual acts but of homosexual identities and communities and subcultures” (30). He mentions records dating back to the Stone ages, and even points out that these identities existed in Native American tribes (30), a people of which Paul would have been unaware. Therefore, how could he be commenting on identities he knew nothing about in his limited knowledge?
This is one of many facts that Sullivan uses successfully to point out how “Prohibitionists” who justify their gay bigotry with the Bible are misguided.
I would take this instance a step further and say that here is an important example of where the context in which something in the Bible is said matters. This is not unique, for there are several places where context matters, for people often state that there are places where things are meant to be taken literally and places where things are expressed figuratively—the only way to tell the difference is context. Therefore, you can’t ignore the context in one place and emphasize its importance elsewhere. You have to be consistent.
So the people who are using the Bible to support these offensive “religious freedom” laws are ignoring context. They point to Jesus in general and often Romans in particular to justify their hatred and narrow thinking about people (those in the LGBT community) they don’t understand or accept. Yet, if they’re using Romans, they do so incorrectly. Furthermore, Jesus would never have refused service to any person, especially based on an aspect of their identity with which they were born, such as their sexuality. If these people are so intent on clinging to their hatred—make no mistake, that’s what it is, no matter how you frame it—they should ask themselves if their logic extends to denying people service based on race or gender. That thinking is in the Bible, and yet you don’t hear that used today. Although, sadly, it has been used several times throughout history. Are we anxious to return to those times?